Chiang Ching-kuo was Chiang Kai-shek’s eldest son. In 1925 he set out to study in the Soviet Union with other young Chinese men and women during a period when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was allied with the Soviet Union and a United Front with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Chiang Chingkuo’s fortunes changed dramatically in 1927 when his father ended the United Front and purged the CCP from the KMT.
In retaliation, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin refused to allow Ching-kuo to return to China, although other students were allowed to repatriate. Thus he remained in the Soviet Union, where he worked in various factories and mines and married a Russian woman.
Early in 1937 he was suddenly summoned to Moscow and was told by top Soviet officials that he could return to China. The reason was Japan’s imminent attack on China and the Soviet realization that if China fell, the Soviet Union would be Japan’s next victim.
Chiang Kai-shek immediately began to train his son in government, initially at the county level in regions just behind the battlefront during World War II and then progressively promoting him to bigger tasks both on the mainland and, after the Nationalists lost the civil war to the CCP in 1949, on Taiwan.
In 1965 he was appointed minister of defense; later he was appointed vice-premier, and he became premier in 1972, from which post he initiated many important projects that promoted Taiwan’s rapid economic growth while ensuring an equitable distribution of income.
Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975 during his fifth term as president of the Republic of China. Vice President Yen Chia-kan served out the remaining years of Chiang Kai-shek’s term and retired. Chiang Ching-kuo was elected president by the National Assembly in 1978 and was reelected for a second six-year term in 1984.
Chiang Ching-kuo’s stay in the Soviet Union made him an opponent of the communist system. His many years as a laborer also gave him a populist outlook. He was an approachable and popular leader. More important, he began political reforms during his second term.
He saw the political turmoil against the autocratic regimes of the Philippines and South Korea and understood that the prosperous and educated people of Taiwan yearned for democracy. Thus he initiated overall political reforms that ended martial law and censorship, legalized opposition political parties, and implemented free elections. Finally, with his health failing, he promised that none of his family would succeed him as political leader.
After Chiang Ching-kuo’s death, political reforms continued on Taiwan that made it into a democracy, in notable contrast to the communist government of the People’s Republic of China. Although Taiwan’s economic miracle began under Chiang Kai-shek, the credit for its continuation and peaceful political reforms belongs to Chiang Ching-kuo.